The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Goddess under pressure

In one corner of his high-ceilinged factory packed with idols, 80-year-old Mohanbanshi Rudra Pal is at work. He is shaping the goddess’s fingers from a mound of clay. His gnarled fingers, in sharp contrast to the exquisite digits laid out in front of him, speak eloquently of the expertise of six-odd decades.

But Mohanbanshi has had enough. “There is nothing in clay art any more. It is dead. There are hardly any returns. We do it only because we have no other skill,” he says haltingly — even bitterly — as he tries to gather his thoughts into coherent expression.

For someone who had to acquire a spacious workshop in Telengabagan in addition to his shop in Kumartuli —the Calcutta locality inhabited by about 200-odd image-makers, clay artisans and ancillary workers — business is not what it was. “Hay, bamboo, wood, rope and nails have all become expensive. Labour has also become dear. So there is little profit to be made,” he explains.

Clearly, idol-makers have been hit hard by inflation this year. Prices of raw material have gone up, but the idols are selling for less. The season has been particularly bad for Bengal’s artisans who mould images for Durga Puja.

A bundle of hay costs Rs 190 this year, as opposed to Rs 90 last year. Nails, for which the clay artists had to shell out Rs 80 per kilogram this year, came for Rs 32 last year.

Despair is visible on artisan Rudrajit Paul’s face as well. Idol-making, he stresses, hardly brings any returns. “After all, we borrow money from the bank to begin work. The interest rate this time is a whopping 12 per cent per annum. If the images remain unsold, the woodwork rots, the nails rust, the colours fade and the clothing loses its lustre. Making them worthy of worship next year involves fresh investment,” he says.

Rudrajit’s workshop is crammed with some 30 idols. “We need Ma Durga’s blessings to survive inflation. The price of raw materials has gone up by about 25-30 per cent but the organisers aren’t ready to increase the price of the idols. We have had to agree to their prices. It is the only way we can repay our loans,” says Rudrajit, for whom this year could be the end of the road.

The prices of images have gone up merely by Rs 1,000-2,000 this year. A 12-foot image sold for Rs 40,000 last year, but is tagged at Rs 42,000 this year at Mohanbanshi’s factory. And this is despite the fact that he is one of the stalwarts of his profession and commands higher prices than most others. Smaller players in the trade are less fortunate.

Besides, a clay artist’s vocation is a seasonal one. Durga Puja is at the centre of a cluster of holy events on the almanac — Viswakarma, Lakshmi, Kali and Saraswati are the other deities whose idols are created in this season for pujas that span from September to January. “The rest of the year is spent in preparation for the big season. There is no income during the lean period,” he points out.

Idol-maker Partho Paul seems despondent too. He points out that work on idols begins well before orders come in, for idol-making is a time-consuming process. “When the organisers place their orders in mid-July, the images are already 60 per cent done,” he says. “Our buyers drove hard bargains this year,” he adds. He is also anxious about his deadlines. “Thanks to severe power cuts, many of us are running behind schedule. We are paying overtime charges to our labour to finish the work,” he says ruefully.

Of the 851 major Pujas in the city, only a few have corporate sponsorships and hence bigger budgets. The 1,500-odd middle level and smaller Pujas are the ones that ensure the city’s festive spirit. “Hit by inflation, these organisers are working with limited resources this time,” says Mohanbanshi’s son Pradeep Rudra Pal, also an idol-maker.

Relying on subscriptions from neighbourhood families, the smaller pujas are also affected by shrinking advertisements. “Earlier there was an income tax exemption for advertisers, which is not there anymore. We have been forced to take cost cutting measures. While our idol alone cost us Rs 50,000 last year, this time we’ve made sure that it came within Rs 45,000, shaaj (dress) and all,” says Shankar Ghosh, treasurer, Shiv Mandir Sarbojanin Durgotsav Samiti, whose 2008 budget is Rs 10 lakh.

Smaller budget affairs, like the Puja organised by the residents of 40 Lake Avenue, are shelling out Rs 6,700 or so for the images. “We cannot afford more than that as our total budget is Rs 1.2 lakh,” says Ashoke Ghosh, its president.

Art, however, is foremost on image-maker Narayan Paul’s mind. Talk of business and the scion of the Rakhal Paul family — known for their beautiful idols — bristles with righteous indignation. “We are artists. The urge to work comes from within us. And I believe that our art will live on,” he says.

His prophesy sounds feeble in his dingy, half-lit, clay-plastered workshop. It is a wonder that the idols with the Rakhal Paul “label” emerge from its modest door. Legend has it that the gods who wanted to rid themselves of the demons “ideated” Ma Durga. But the creators of her images are evidently the children of a lesser god.

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